Feminist linguistic activism in the U.S. + intersectionality


An example from 1971

Since I’ve been writing about intersecionality, I will start with that.

When two female students at Harvard Divinity School in 1971 made a request to their professor to stop using “he to refer to God and masculine pronouns to refer to people in general,” the professor honored their requests. While some male students were open to this newly implemented practice, other male students including the few students of color were resistant. They were “leery of white feminists, even though we had come out of the civil rights movement ourselves,” stated Emily Culpepper, one of the students who made the request. This is an applicable example of how one marginalized group can impede the cause of the other marginalized group.

An example from 2019: U.S. Supreme Court Hearing on LGBTQ employment discrimination


Source: One Iowa Facebook Page

One Iowa, a non-profit organization that “advances, empowers, and improves the lives of LGBTQ Iowas statewide,” made a posting on their Facebook page yesterday. It was an update on the current hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court on three cases about LGBTQ employment discrimination with a poster that says Protect LGBTQ Workers. “These cases will determine if federal law protects LGBTQ people.” It made me question hard: ‘What could be the ground for not hiring or firing someone based on their sexual representation? How could it connect to their job competency?’ I could not come up with an answer. Currently, the civil rights laws of some states provide protection from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity but it is not covered in federal civil rights laws. Can we justify discriminating against a person because of who they are? Sexual orientation or gender identity is a core part of an individual like race, color, religion, sex or national origin, the elements covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If we can opt to exclude a part of identity from legal protection, wouldn’t it mean that we can exclude any element? When we fail to protect a group of people who are marginalized due to their identifying characteristics, for example, immigrants or women, it does not just affect that group; it affects all marginalized groups. That is how intersectionality works.

Feminist linguistic activism in the U.S.

The story of two female students at Harvard Divinity School is used in the article, Language and its everyday revolutionary potential: feminist linguistic activism in the US by Christine Mallinson (2017), as an example of “challenging man-made language forms.” Mallinson analyzes three strategies deployed in linguistic activism by the U.S. feminists: (1) challenging man-made language forms, (2) creating and institutionalizing egalitarian naming practices, and (3) linguistic disruption. These activists use the language as “an object to reform” as well as “a platform for revolution.”

In the introduction, Mallison explains the fundamental problem with English as a man-made language:

Gendered linguistic inequalities are also often rendered invisible, via pervasive gendered ideologies that construct male-oriented, hegemonic social structures, positions, and practices as normal and natural.
Language not only reflects larger social arrangements and hierarchies; it also creates, challenges, and maintains them.

Let’s go over the three strategies under discussion one by one.

Challenging man-made language forms

What the two female students at Harvard Divinity School challenged in their request was the use of androcentric words. They are “centered on, emphasizing, or dominated by males or masculine interests.” They cause problems to gender equality because they try to “establish ‘the man/the male as the prototype for human representation … [and] reduces the woman/female to the status of the ‘subsumed,’ the ‘invisible,’ or the ‘marked’ one’” (Pauwels 2003: 553). 25 years after this incident, organizations have now established their policy against sexist language. For example, the Linguistic Society of America recommends that “whenever possible, use plurals and other appropriate alternatives, rather than only masculine pronouns and ‘pseudo-generics’ such as man, unless referring specifically to males” (LSA Bulletin 1996: 68). Although the wave of generic use of man and masculine pronouns has passed us mostly, now there is an emergence of a new androcentric term: you guys. This is proof that male hegemony will continue to rise and seep through our language use because “being required to speak of people as males … seem[s] natural, immutable and preferable” (Henley and Abueg 2003: 449).

Creating and institutionalizing egalitarian naming practices

A big part of this work is instituting titles that treat all genders equally such as the use of Ms. Abandoning Miss. and Mrs. was important because “women were judged, qualified, and disqualified, included and excluded, on the basis their marital status” (Eckert and McConnel-Ginnet 2003: 43). Nowadays, another title is being promoted, especially in the U.K.: the gender-neutral Mx. (pronounced like “mix”).

Linguistic disruption

This strategy is used to disrupt the male hegemony by “actively making women visible in everyday language and everyday spaces.” The first type of the strategy is the neologism, introducing new words such as herstory, and womyn. They are not intended to be realistic or be used widely. They rather serve the purpose of “re-envisioning of language and history by and for women, and to raise awareness, sometimes in a more provocative manner” (Pauwels 2003: 562). The second type is called “form replacement” or “gender-neutralization.” These are simple, practical, and attainable changes such as switching from fireman to firefighterchairman to chair(person), waiter/waitress to server.

Concluding Q&A

Some people are skeptical of linguistic activism: can language use bring about social changes? Language and society are tightly intertwined and therefore influence each other constantly. As the generic use of you guys in recent years shows, the male hegemony will keep influencing our language use. At the same time, “we do language,” according to the author Toni Morrison. Each individual is an independent agent of the language they use. Here is a quote from Mallinson to conclude:

We can claim words, we can fight over their meanings, we can resist linguistic bias, we can tamper with sexist form, we can creatively deploy linguistic resources, we can speak truth to power.

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